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The Library



Chris Agee

Four years on, the author recalled an historic Irish agreement at Stormont.
This essay appeared in “Inaugural Issue: Belfast in Europe” (Volume 1, Number 1, 2002), the first issue of
Irish Pages


Afternoon weather was the metaphor.

On the Tuesday before the talks deadline of Thursday April 9th, 1998, set by Tony Blair early in his premiership, it had cleared suddenly to a deep and flawless azure more like Provence than Ireland. Inside the talks, however, all was gloom. The unionists were declining to accept the draft Agreement – prepared by the British and Irish governments and presented through Senator George Mitchell, the American chairman of the talks – as the basis for a final constitutional settlement. Predicting Thursday’s outcome would, clearly, be as chancy as prophesying the next hour’s processional of cloud-laden, Turneresque moods.

Wednesday was the archetypical Irish “dirty day”: wet, bleak, grey. The Belfast hills were topped by tourbillons of low mist. By late afternoon, the usual mizzle-mist or sporadic shower had turned to a heavy downpour. But at the talks, adjacent to the old Parliament at Stormont near Belfast, the mood was brightening. It was just possible that a settlement ending the Thirty Years Stalemate of the Troubles, and the most important political beginning since Partition in 1920, was on the cards.

Ireland has what meteorologists call an “oceanic” climate, particularly in the North. It is swept by the restless vagaries of North Atlantic isobars. Here the trade-winds, currents and tempests from the circumnavigations of the Gulf Stream make their far-western European landfall. The phosphorescent flares of New England trawler-nets and the smooth brown pods of the Caribbean bean litter the tidelines of Mayo. Year round, Irish weather is soft, clement, rain-drenched and fickle; whereas that of its latitudinal twin, Newfoundland, with its Arctic winter and fleeting summertime, is harsh and intemperate, a New World Siberia. Where one might dig deep in bog in Ireland, there is tundra and permafrost in Labrador.

Precipitation and changeability: therein lies the glory of Irish weather. Like the unique air of a culture or period, or some autochthonous ecology of light and wet, the island’s weather is full of its own special blend of shimmerings and dazzles. Ireland lacks both the true wintriness that frequents Scotland and the continental warmth of the South of England at high summer. Sea-girt and sea-buffeted, it is shielded from the extremes of the great Eurasian landmass. It seldom freezes for long and is never sultry in the meridional sense. Snow is rarely more than a shallow icing. If it lacks the steady warmth and illumination of Mediterranean claritas, or the crisp resolutions of North American seasons, Ireland has its own its medicine­bag, its own Ariel, for meteorological enchantments.

Above all, Irish weather throbs and shines when sunlight meets the endless impressionism of ocean moisture. Cloud shadows mountain. Hailshowers in sunlight. A rainbow amid storm-darkenings over Belfast Lough. Dusk and rain-drops spangling the shimmy of a window like a bird’s breast. Moon adrift in scud or rack, sunshafts fingering curtains of mist. Droplets on clover as tensile as the tremblings of quicksilver. It is an atmospheric dazzle you often glimpse in that Vermeer of sensation, Seamus Heaney: buffetings, dews, frosts, hail-stones, rinsings, lightenings, “glitter­drizzle, almost-breaths of air” and other “subtle little wets.” Or even, on occasion, in Samuel Beckett, in the brightening recollection of blue skies knotting the grain of his parables.

Thursday, the decisive day, dawned oceanic. Cottony dirigibles arose in the East and steamed over. It shone, darkened, gusted, showered; a stream of cycles. When my late afternoon work-out finished and I stepped from the gym in the cloud-capped shadow of Black Mountain, a splatter of hail was falling in bright sunlight. It bounced and settled on a grass verge dotted with speedwell. Endgame time. Turning the ignition I looked forward to the evening’s television.

On the news the consensus was that a deal, despite impediments, was in the offing. It was the beginning of an astounding moment: modern Ireland’s psychic Appomattox, though – crucially – no one was surrendering. From then on the Irish channels – BBC Northern Ireland, Ulster Television, Raidió Teilifís Éireann – suspended scheduling and went more or less live. A succession of talking heads, politicians and pundits, propounded from Stormont, or studios in Belfast, London, Dublin, Brussels, America. Downstairs to make a cup of tea, I found myself thinking of that moment, on the upstairs landing, when I had shouted to my wife that the Berlin Wall had fallen. The high drama of high politics.

Only towards midnight, however, did I twig the depth of the parallel. With each new assessment of the waxing prospects, the psychic partition of the country was being breached before our eyes. The actual brick and breeze-block wall that snakes for miles through the heart of West Belfast, whose euphemism is “the peace line,” might stand for years. No jubilant crowds were gathering in the streets to deconstruct division. But just as surely, the inner Irish Wall was tottering, being chipped away by invisible, televisual legions: the spirit-troop of popular hope.

Then it happened. Perhaps there is a moment in every revolution, literal or psychological, when symbolism translates directly into the ebb or flow of power – whose momentousness lies in this very transmutation. Such was Ceausescu’s speech from the balcony, Yeltsin mounted on a tank, or Mayor Daly haranguing the podium at the 1968 Democratic Convention. For it was around midnight that the panjandrum of extreme Protestantism, the Reverend Ian Paisley – high priest of bigots and homophobes, scourge of Christian charity, Jeremiah of Ulster’s apocalypse – arrived at the gates of Stormont Castle to join a chanting crowd, aswirl with Union Jacks and St George’s Crosses. Imagine a Cotton Mather unredeemed by humane learning; or an ignoramus instinct with charisma masquerading as Jonathan Edwards. Then imagine a party of ethnic “Protestantism” centred around such a figure. What you have, perforce, is a deformation of the Reformation.

He was let in the grounds and led his hundreds to the Soviet-style statue of Edward Carson, architect of Partition and first Prime Minister in Northern Ireland’s old Parliament, prorogued in 1973 for the blatant Jim Crowism of unionist rule. It was instantly clear that despite the braggadocio of his protest against the imminence of compromise – a shot across the bows from a cunning wrecker – he was staring at a colossal miscalculation and, down the road, the political wilderness. From day one, he had boycotted the talks, a prime reason they were now succeeding against all easy expectation.

The crowd was held back, and he and a few lieutenants proceeded to the entrance of the perimeter fence surrounding the purpose-built building for the talks. Slyly, a few days earlier, the British Government had already denied him entrance, on no other grounds than astute politics, since he had long been invited and held a pass. It was a classic piece of political sharp practice within the rules of the game. He was made a gate-crasher at the moveable feast of peace. Thundering, Paisley adjourned to a Nissen hut next to the fence, there to hold forth at an ad hoc news conference: no doubt his intention all along.

Now, crying wolf for the umpteenth time, he was the true wolf at the door. The talks had overrun their midnight deadline, and though hope was escalating by the hour, it was still a close-run thing, and success might yet be tipped at the post by some unbridgeable gap. Although Paisley has always been careful not to sully his hands directly, no one person, within the structure of mindsets and forces in the North, had done more to foment years of violent unionist backlash and so pad the self-exculpations of the IRA. His “Province” may be small as the Baltic Oblast of Kaliningrad, but his certitude is an overweening and gargantuan as Stalin’s.

A truly great totalitarian (and like many others, he hails from a borderland), he has built the hot gospel of his politics and church (an offshoot of an offshoot of Presbyterianism) on one-man ground so pinched and narrow that it affords his ego a perfect fastness from which to bellow, bully, rabble-rouse, threaten, instigate. (I come – two generations back – from a line of Tennessee Calvinists, and know whereof I speak). He is an adept at provoking, negatively, the inner mask of ethno-national identity that can either inflect or suppress the individual sensibility.

Nor is he simply some pre-modern dinosaur – like so much of twentieth century religious pathology, Paisley’s specious revival of “old-time religion” is a wholly modern phenomenon. It means to cherish an ignorant caricature of old faith by papering over the cracks posed either by the paradigm of science or (most dangerously) by the contemporary revision of religious sensibility. It substitutes the ardour and imagery of doctrine for a true opening to the challenge of a living and lived experience of authentic faith. Postmodernism in reverse, you might say. But by ignoring the cracks, it fails also to address them and in a sense accepts them; so it, too, is a form of unbelief, and a most invidious sort, one that will plague this century as it did the last: religious nihilism. That is why the patent medicine of apocalypse always has the flavour of people who despair of life, and would soon enough give it up. In truth Paisley’s is not so much a theology or a politics as a perennial politico-religious psychology, no less evident in Catholicism or Judaism or Islam, that calls down ire and hellfire on the Other due to some molten angst, flaw or wound in its own spirituality. Arrogance as the obverse of deficiency. Zeal masking aggression. In this way Paisley professes Christian love even as he traduces its spirit though a tone-deaf fabulation of the letter.

Then, as I say, it happened. The hut was jammed with journalists, security officials, low-level politicos and sundry hangers-on. Outside, the night was Shakespearean – wind-tossed, lashed by bouts of rain. The cameras went live just as Paisley and his two main lieutenants seated themselves at the microphones.

“The Big Man” began to speak. It was the usual growling bellow that is slowly built up to paroxysms of high-pitched thunderings of contempt and betrayal. But no sooner had he gotten a few words out, he was being barracked by several unseen voices at the back. You could feel the whoosh of a collective televisual gasp: who were these noises off? In a flash it was obvious that they were loyalists – the Irish descendant of a term once also used for Americans loyal to the Crown during the Revolutionary period.

Incredible moment: Paisley stood down, in the full glare of mass theatre, by his own “side.” Loyalism is a strand of unionism but with a more militant, working-class, secular and (dread word) Irish inflection; it stands to mainstream unionism as republicanism does to moderate nationalism. Paisley, who had always presumed to lead it, instantly intuited the political danger of being hoisted on his own media petard. Although it is doubtful whether he was fully aware of it, it was the man, rather than the politician, that was being rumbled by the uncut gaze of the camera.

Paisley was flummoxed by the brickbats. One expected him to recover from the stumble and, as usual, to override the adversity, but somehow he didn’t manage it. Was he getting old? A voice floated up: “Where will you take us, Ian, if we follow you out the door?” Another sang through the growing commotion: “The Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men…”

With a sweep of the arm Paisley barked out to no one in particular: “Remove them!” He smiled inwardly, arrogantly; muttered a few words to himself, in the downward direction of the baize, with the bristling sarcasm and embattled brittleness of a fundamentalist autodidact; pursed and flattened his lips in a trademark tic of rectitude and intolerance shared by many of his Northern compatriots. He wanted a congregation, not an audience.

His tar-barrel theatricality – a Hibernicised descendant of the camp revivalism of the American Bible Belt – was malfunctioning. He who in a fog of self-righteousness had so often treated his interlocutors to extreme rudeness, was now getting a dose of his own medicine. Live coverage bore down like one of those all-seeing divine eyes, ensconced in a triangle, that adorn the Masonic regalia of Orangeism. In a few moments, with a few deft strokes, the Paul Bunyan of loyalism was outflanked, punctured like a helium float. Even many of his stalwarts must have found it difficult to suppress, as the Buddhists say, the truth of consciousness. If every dog has its day, this dog’s was done, or at least ending… however much it might keep barking and snapping.

Weeks before the symbolism of dates had dawned on me. Happenstance symmetry, or the astuteness of those managing “the peace process” under the aegis of Anglo-Irish cooperation? The deadline for the completion of the talks was Maundy Thursday (8 April); since they were likely to run to the eleventh hour, the deal, if clinched, would be delivered to the world on Good Friday. In the first place, it seemed scheduling and political logic argued not for happenstance but astuteness. Yet, maybe it was one of those extraordinary coincidences, like Germany’s 9th November, which has seen the end of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic (1918), Kristallnacht (1938) and the Fall of the Wall (1989)? And if a deal was indeed clinched, the Referendum would be held on 22 May; on that day two centuries before, the United Irishmen had launched, in Belfast and Dublin, their uprising for an Irish republic.

Then there was the special Irish resonance of Easter itself, evoking the republican iconography of the 1916 commemorations at Bodenstown and Milltown. It seemed extraordinary that the fracture that commenced with the Easter Rising had come full circle and begun to be annealed in a new light at the same season. On second thought, hadn’t the Northern love of calendrical symbolism, and the aestheticization of violence attendant on the inevitability of such symbols – that special Ulster sense of fate, like the wyrd of Old English, lurking in the iconography – hadn’t this love, in fact, been one of the prime sources of the glamour and ritualism of the “Troubles,” so different, even in that homely label, from the true wars of the former Yugoslavia?

Of course the Easter Rising had happened not on Easter, but Easter Monday. Patrick Pearse, Gaelic scholar and aesthete that he was, would have well understood the symbolic distinction, whether or not it was factored into his calculations or his piety. In Irish “Dé Luain” means both “on Monday” and “on the day of judgment.” The Irish language poet and novelist Eoghan Ó Tuairisc titled his 1966 novel on Pearse and his leadership of the Rising just that, Dé Luain. When the neoclassical GPO was seized and the Republic descending from the Greeks proclaimed, it was a step into the historical dark and, for some of course, a rendezvous with the actual dark.

Still deeper in the background, there was the ancient pedigree of the seasonal meaning. The Anglo-Saxon for Easter, Eastre, was derived by the Venerable Bede from the name of a goddess whose feast was celebrated at the vernal equinox. Its ultimate root, harking back through Old Frisian and Old High German, was the Sanskrit for morning or dawn. As such it is cognate with the “aurora” of Latin and “tomorrow” of Greek.

With this image at the back of my mind, I had been hoping to take Jacob, my son, to watch the Easter dawn from the Giant’s Ring at Ballyleeson, just outside Belfast. If we rose before first light, we might get there in time, perhaps, to catch, like a harbinger, the tail of Hale-Bopp. If it was clear, we could sit on the dewiness of the immense earthen embankment and watch the molten foil spill over the mountains round Belfast, lifting shadow from the great bowl of sward and illumining what Robinson Jeffers, who lived for a time in Belfast in the mid-twenties, called in a poem about the Ring “that great toad of a dolmen/Piled up of ponderous basalt that sheds the centuries like raindrops.” (It is odd to think of the poet of the Big Sur domiciled amidst the mists and glooms of Partition, in a British backwater at the height of the Deep Freeze, a stone’s throw from Yeats’ “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” Though, on reflection, perhaps not.) In the event, two days later, when I awoke in the morning dusk of Easter, it was wet and overcast, and I scuppered the outing without wakening Jacob.

Good Friday was bright and gusty, “through-other” with sun and cloud. I woke slightly later than usual, towards ten, and straight away switched on the Tube. Atmosphere electrified the scene beamed from the car park, where the world’s media had established its caravanserai of trucks and dishes: it had happened, it seemed, bar the last push. A wind-buffeted microphone was swivelling between the sound-bites of pairs of politicians queuing to speak.

In my own satirical self-speak I had for some time been fond of seeing the North’s lead players as either Antiques or Moderns. An Antique was a soul afflicted with the pathology of provincialism. A Modern was one who had missed or slipped it. The Division transcended age, culture, creed, class, education and politics. It was more a frame of mind, or an orientation of deep formation, than a matter of the surface of self-conscious belief. Some of the worst Antiques being, in fact, intellectuals. To use a culinary metaphor, it was the difference between a cholesterol-laden “Ulster fry” (bacon, egg, sausage, black sausage, potato bread and soda bread fried in fat) and a Continental breakfast. Antique Ulster was a secret monoculture with two colour-coded inflections that ate the same breakfast.

Over my Special K I watched the wind-jostled camera bring another pair into view: John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the party of constitutional nationalism, and Davey Adams, one of the leaders of a small loyalist party affiliated with the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary organisation responsible for the random killing of hundreds of Catholics. A few years earlier, months of meetings between them, let alone a meeting of minds, would have been political pie-in-the­sky. Yet that is precisely where these two Moderns – one preeminent, one improbable – had now ended up, this very moment, stepping out of the marathon of the final all-night negotiations. Who was to be more admired, the one who had not changed, or the one who had changed?

Hume, always alert to the language of occasion, edged forward and took pole position to speak. He has always seemed to me to be cut from the same cultural cloth as his fellow Derryman Seamus Heaney. Both belong to the Redmondite tradition of constitutional nationalism, but the affinity strikes me as deeper than mere politics or even the traditional Catholicism of the upbringing of each. It is more a matter of cultural poise; of being at home in equal proportion in their provincia, on the island, within the wider world.

What the two make of background navigates the Scylla and Charybdis of Ulster’s culture wars: the laager mentality of the unionists, and its gangrenous doppelganger, the martyrological imperative of armed republicanism. In distinct but overlapping spheres, politician and poet have fashioned a discourse of the optative Ireland where “hope and history rhyme,” and where the parish is comprehended – as the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler once put it – from the vantage of the cosmopolitan: “The interpreters will be those who can see the national life as well as live it. To acquire this detachment, they will need to have access to other forms of society, so that they can see their own lives objectively and in totality from the threshold.” And now, it seemed, was the crowning moment, when the optative had begun to transmute to the present continuous.

Visibly moved, Hume said simply, “This is a Good Friday gift to the people of Ireland,” before giving way to Adams, who made to speak. But all that issued was the strangled beginnings of an opening Uh. He was choked up, near tears. You felt the moment in yourself, the camera lulling for a second on the silent pair, before being magicked up to the anchor-man in a Portacabin studio above the parking lot.

It was late afternoon when I drove home from the week’s last work­out. On the hills above West Belfast the whitethorn blossom of the hedgerows put me in mind of combers foaming down through the quilted fields. It was cloudy but lightsome, and the streets, emptying early before the long weekend, were spangled with showers. A pillar box painted green caught a sudden shaft of declining sun. By the time I reached South Belfast, the West had cleared to a deepening hue of cobalt, a last late sunshine bathing the brick of an old terrace district. The scruffy kerbstones of Primrose and Gipsy Streets were awash in a sudden preternatural glow. About this time, I would notice later on the news, the final Stormont plenary had convened for the cameras; Senator Mitchell announced “the new British-Irish Agreement”; and the eight delegations emerged successively onto the steps of Government Buildings to address the massed ranks of the global media – braving, over the next hour, and only a few miles away, a final meteorological fitfulness of gusts, drizzle, sun showers and sleet.

Towards eight I walked out with Jacob to see what was playing at the cinema a few blocks away. A last deep glaze of jade, darkling and translucent, lay on the horizon under a streak of stratus. The Moonrise has just lifted over the silhouette of the houses beyond the thoroughfare of the Ormeau Road. Among the innumerable images for its elemental presence, would I ever quite find the one that got the beauty, the minerality, the geometry of that bright alabaster disc, its Minerva’s owl’s-eye, light out of the dark, magnificence reflected in the void?

Easter came chill, fresh and sunny. It blustered, and the brilliant blue of Tuesday was brindled with puffs of cumulus. Even as sun warmed the skin, there was the smoke-scent and crispness of autumn. Mid-afternoon, a low wall of grey cloud agleam, interspersed with blue, trailed a sudden manna of hail across the street-scene in my bay, rattling the panes. Within minutes, it had laid an immaculate blanket of snowy catkins on the tarmac, cars, roofs, gardens and bins. The hailstones were light, dry, peanut-sized – the largest I had ever seen – and out front the clover-and-grass seemed coated in drifts of Styrofoam. Suddenly the air had the high-altitude freshness of a timberline.

Just as quickly, the downfall was changing to a slush the colour of mothballs. The sun shone on the steaming street’s meltwater, and the last white on the facing roof was like fallen blossom. Soon nothing was left of the day’s visitation of hail but a few white shadows in the green shade of hedges. An hour later, all was rinsed, the light crystalline. The large camellia five doors down, its fall of magenta daubing the footpath, reminded me of Chagall. Incontrovertibly, something new was in the air. 

From Irish Pages Vol. 10 No. 2: The Belfast Agreement: Twentieth Anniversary Issue.

Chris Agee was born in San Francisco and grew up in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. After high school at Phillips Academy Andover and a year in Aix-en-Provence, France, he attended Harvard University and since graduation has lived in Ireland. His third collection of poems, Next to Nothing, was shortlisted in Britain for the 2009 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and its sequel, Blue Sandbar Moon, appeared in 2018. He is the Editor of Irish Pages, and recently edited Balkan Essays, the sixth volume of Hubert Butler’s essays.

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